The issue

Your weekly guide to a whole-school issue

Did you know?

* Fewer than 50 children have died on school trips since 1985; about 200 die on UK roads every year

* One of the first incidents on a school trip was at the Wembley Exhibition in 1925, when a child was injured on the miniature railway

* The DfES is still updating its already lengthy and comprehensive guidance on school trip safety in the wake of a series of high-profile tragedies, including two schoolgirls drowned during a river walk in Yorkshire

* School trip money is an "unofficial fund" (that is, it's not government or local authority money). There are strict guidelines for the way such funds are run

If you include short-distance outings - to visit the library, go swimming or see places of worship - almost every child goes on a trip at least twice in a school year. That's 20 million or so individual outings.

Estimates of how many children go on longer outings, including residentials, are difficult to come by, but a million is a conservative guess. The tradition of going out and about with teachers is deeply embedded in the life of schools and has been since the popular train trips of the Twenties and Thirties. (The Wembley Exhibition in 1925 attracted several school groups - in fact, a child was injured on the miniature railway there and the school was found to have exercised insufficient supervision.) Against that background, if you can measure human suffering in numbers, school trips don't begin to compare as lethal activities to other things young people do. The facts are that while fewer than 50 children have died on school trips since 1985, about 200 die on UK roads every year.

Nevertheless, there have been some high-profile tragedies in recent years, and last week a 15-year-old girl died in a coach crash in Bierre-les-Semur, France, during a school trip to Barcelona organised by the Largs Academy in Ayrshire. Three teachers and several other pupils were seriously injured. Certainly, there's a brutal irony about a death in circumstances in which parents have entrusted their children to what they have the right to assume is a team of qualified and competent professionals. And for every high-profile accident there are innumerable "there but for the grace of God" incidents that, with the slightest of differences to an angle, height, or response by an adult, could have been fatal.

Why do it?

There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that school trips are good for attitudes, behaviour and social skills. There's harder research evidence, too, of the educational value of fieldwork in subjects such as environmental science and geography - it reinforces learning, increases motivation and improves the recall of facts. All of this is summarised in Dr Stuart Nundy's Raising Achievement Through the Environment, published by the National Association of Field Studies Officers (see Resources).

Before you start off

A senior member of staff should co-ordinate and supervise the arrangements. He or she will have a checklist of essential tasks - submitting plans to governors, informing parents, contacting venues, handling money. If there is no written checklist, work with senior management and governors to create one. Study, then follow, your school policy on trips and the guidelines from your authority and the Department for Education and Skills. (School policy will be closely based on authority guidelines, with the addition of internal school management arrangements.) It seems obvious, but it doesn't always happen. Sometimes teachers have done the same trip for years and forgotten rules or failed to keep up with changes. Most local authorities have detailed guidelines, so check the latest version.

In the wake of a series of high-profile tragedies including two schoolgirls drowned on a river walk in Yorkshire and the drowning of 11-year-old Bumni Shagaya on a school trip to France, the DfES is updating its already lengthy and comprehensive guidance on school trip safety - the "work in progress" document is available on the Teachernet website (see Resources). The biggest change is the creation of an educational visits co-ordinator (EVC). Each school must soon have an EVC, who will oversee visits and be the in-house expert on risk management, training, and so on. He or she is expected to provide the link between the local education authority and school.

Be clear about who is in charge

A school trip is often organised by a team of colleagues, but there has to be a leader who is recognised as such, not only by the staff and children, but by others, such as residential hostel staff. That's not to say that the leader won't delegate parts of the organisation. John Colverson, who runs skiing trips from Blue Coat school in Coventry, says he gives all staff a job to do - "organising clothing, fixing insurance, running a trip to the Snow Dome. The leader can't do it all."

Think about the size of your party

Guidelines - local authority or DfES - set down the requirements for group size and adultpupil ratio in various circumstances. The recommended size for a secondary group doing an everyday, non-adventurous activity is about 15, with two adults in charge, one of whom is a teacher. Fifteen means the leader and assistant can see quickly if anyone is missing, the group members can get to know and bond with "their" adults, and the group can be built into a mutually supportive team. Primary groups should be smaller - look carefully at your local authority guidelines for help here. But "accepted" ratios are one adult for every six pupils in Years 1-3; one for every 10-15 pupils in Years 4-6.

Never understaff. If you have to send someone for help, or escort a child who is hurt or who has misbehaved, you will need a spare adult or you will place a heavy burden on the ones who remain.

The possibility of having to enforce a "sending home" threat is another argument for taking as many staff as you can, because the child will need to be brought home by an adult. And there are other circumstances in which a single child may need supervision at the venue or on a return trip - in the case of illness, a trip to hospital, or a family crisis.

Carry out a risk assessment

This will be laid down in the local authority and school guidelines. Do it carefully, taking as much advice as you can muster, for it protects you as well as the children. But don't regard it as cast in stone. You must keep it constantly under review before and during the trip.

Think hard before leaving a badly behaved child behind School trips are invariably run by experienced and able teachers who know that difficult children often behave impeccably on school trips. But if you do feel you must ban someone, be sure of your grounds. Risk assessment is the key. If, on an objective assessment of risk, advised by teachers who know the child well, you can show that a child may be a threat to his or her own or others' safety, you will be justified in leaving him or her behind.

Looking after the money

Most school trips are paid for by the pupils' families. Someone has to collect the money and account for it - often over a long time - so you must have rigid controls. Fraud is rare - although not unknown. Muddle and inefficiency are far more common. According to financial regulations, school trip money is an "unofficial fund" (that is, it's not government or local authority money) and your local authority will have strict guidelines for the way such funds are run. If you are in any doubt, talk to the internal audit division of your authority. The staff there would much rather advise you in advance than have to sort out problems later. The basic principles are:

* always have two people to count money so they check each other;

* have two signatures on cheques, and never have one signatory sign cheques in advance;

* bank money frequently;

* don't make any payments from cash you've collected. Bank it intact and then write cheques;

* never mix up your own money with the school trip money;

* pay as many bills as possible by cheque. If you do need to use cash on the trip, run it as a correctly recorded petty cash account;

* give receipts for all payments made to you and for all payments you make;

* aim for fireproof records - a trail of confirmation for every transaction.

Clarify medical issues

As a matter of routine you'll ask parents to fill in a form detailing any medical problems their children have. But you need to know more than the name of the condition; you need to know how to recognise it and what you will have to do if the symptoms occur. Also keep a careful record of what medication is given to each child, by whom and when (Blue Coat has a proforma for this). "You'd look silly at the hospital if you started saying, 'We think he had a tablet yesterday and there might have been one the day before,'" says Blue Coat's David Roberts. Call for professional medical help if in any doubt about the health of a pupil on a trip.

Where governors fit in

In the last analysis, responsibility for school trips lies with the governors. Blue Coat governors have a working party with responsibility for school trips. They receive a written report from the school every Friday, and meet every two months or so. Local short trips, such as a walk to a place of worship for RE, will simply be included in the weekly report.

Arrangements for more ambitious trips, including residentials, will be discussed by the working party and then referred on to the full governors'

meeting for approval.

On the trip itself

Stick to the planned itinerary. It's too easy to be diverted by something interesting or attractive nearby. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents uses the example of the teacher who plans an environmental science activity on the beach and is then tempted by the weather and the sea to allow the children to paddle. "Teachers will have done a risk assessment for the beach activity," says RoSPA spokesperson Roger Vincent, "but not for the paddling - they don't know about the depth of the water, its temperature, or currents. They won't have thought it through."

Keep updating your risk assessment as you go, using local knowledge. Check, for example, the weather forecast before you set out on a walk or ride, and ask locally about the effects of weather in the surrounding area.

Be ready for anything

"We were walking on peat bog in the Peak District," says a secondary teacher. "The ground was moving in that sort of wavy way, like jelly, that boggy ground does. The movement was enough to trigger off an epileptic fit in one pupil. I had to cope with him face down in the bog while the other teacher managed the rest of the group. Luckily, we were both capable of doing what we had to."

If everything does go wrong. . .

Your priority is the safety of the children. Get them into a safe place - preferably their residential base - settle and calm them and let their individual group leaders be with them. Contact senior management back at school using the means you planned for. Give the unadorned facts. This is not a time for softening bad news, or for self-justification.

Any decision about what is to happen - immediate return, for example - is for your management at home to decide, but be prepared to give a recommendation. Similarly, the arrangements for your return will be handled at home, but you must be ready to run the operation at your end.

As leader, free yourself to deal with outside agencies - phone contact with school, dealing with local police and medical people, UK representatives, the travel firm. If you, or another adult, have to stay behind - with a child in hospital, or to help inquiries - consider asking for someone to come out from home for support. All media queries must be directed to your school.

Be aware of children being in contact with home by mobile phone, text or a payphone. You should also try to be firm about limiting speculation and rumour. Keep in touch with your school on the way home. The school should arrange for a private arrival - unannounced, into a back gate, for example, avoiding the press. And make sure you contact your professional association as soon as you can.

On the home run

Parents are always eager to meet their children off the coach. But in the confusion a parent may turn up late to find a child has gone off with a friend. "I tell the parents we're arriving later than we really intend, so I can get the children off the coaches and into school," says one head. "Then we can properly control their departure, and speak to parents about any problems or minor illnesses their children have had."

And finally. . .

Enjoy it. Although the teaching unions are concerned about the emergence of a "blame culture", it's striking that most teachers (and their pupils) smile when they talk about school trips. There's a huge desire to keep the tradition alive.

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